INVITATION TO A WEDDING
The invitation, though embossed on the stiffest 100 percent rag-content paper Gribbley’s, Stationers to Her Majesty, could produce, nonetheless had more than a whiff of the prepackaged Marks & Sparks sales offering about it. Ruthven could not remem-ber ever having seen a missive so entirely festooned with angels, or, given his background, decorated with anything more festive than black engraving on woven cream.
Yet here, naked seraphim and cherubim peeked coyly from the pink lining of the envelope, and from every corner of the thick pink card itself, grinning lasciviously as they held aloft a lavender banner announcing what appeared to be an upcoming event, perhaps the end of the world. Their sly expressions duplicated that which normally appeared on Ruthven’s own somewhat round features, which tended to hold a smirk, even in repose. He first scanned the card, then studied it more closely, then groaned aloud.
“The old fool’s gone and done it. He’s really gone and done it.” He threw the invitation across the breakfast table in the general direction of his wife. It missed (for it was a very large table), ricocheted off the silver toast rack, and skidded off onto the highly polished wooden floor.
“Done what, dear?” Lillian, her gaze held by a large display ad-vertisement for precious gemstones, and herself inured, by long years of marriage, to her husband’s tantrums, ignored the card, which now lay face downward on the floor.
“He’s actually marrying one of his little tarts, that’s what.”
Lowering the paper, she peered at him over the headlines relating the latest brawl in Parliament. Lillian, skimming the front page on her way to the advertisements, had noted it seemed to have something to do with child care. If they couldn’t take care of the little brats, why did they keep having them, she wondered? The accompanying photo showed the Prime Minister emerging with a preoccupied scowl from 10 Downing Street, in conscious imitation of Churchill during the darkest days of the war.
She also had taken a glance in passing at the obituaries. She found it interesting that the unimportant people always seemed to die in alphabetical order. She was about to comment on this observable fact when the full import of Ruthven’s words took hold.
“Marrying?” Her voice caught on the last syllable. “Which one? Not the one with the enormous—”
“Probably.” Even with his wife, or especially with his wife, Ruthven could not bring himself to use the vulgarities that were the bedrock of his vocabulary in all-male company.
“—dachshund?” she finished faintly. “Has he lost his mind, do you think?” Her tone, although devoid of pity, suggested she thought it was a real possibility. On the last phrase, her voice rose on an ending squeak of hysteria.
“Far from it. Cunning and diabolical as ever, I’d say.”
She roughly folded the paper into a heap on the table, the sale on emeralds forgotten. Lowering her voice conspiratorially, remembering Alice in the kitchen, she stage-whispered.
“What is he going to do, do you think? To you, I mean?”
Ruthven was not so blind to his wife’s many faults as not to know what she really meant was, To Me.
“I haven’t a clue,” said Ruthven. “It could be his way of trying to cut me out of my inheritance entirely. But surely even he—”
“Try not to upset yourself, dear. Remember your heart …”
Another thought struck her as she bent to retrieve the gaudy missive from the floor. She straightened.
“Your poor mother.” This time the pity might have been sincere, a woman on the cusp of middle age viewing the fate of one many years past its vicissitudes. She looked at her balding, stout husband, so like his father (who looked more like a greengrocer than a famous author), and so unlike his mother, who was going to seed in a rather determined, yet fatalistic, way.
A fear seized Lillian, not for the first time in the twenty-odd years of her marriage.
Although she had long ago rejected her re-ligious upbringing as being inconveniently at odds with her avaricious nature, a prayer went through her mind: Please don’t let it all have been for nothing.
“Yes, I had better ring her. Preferably before it gets too late in the day. You know how she—”
“Yes, I know. Good God, this is a disaster. Quite apart from it making the family the laughingstock of the world. A disaster. Ruthven, we must do something.”
“My dear.” He cleared his throat. “My dear, I think it’s time we had a little chat.”
There remain rental flats in the greater London area that, were estate agents given to truth in advertising, would be fairly listed as dark, grotty, unwholesome bedsits with living space too small in which to swing a cat. Maida Vale, although having enjoyed huge victories in the ever-escalating real estate price war that had driven the average population farther and farther afield in search of shel-ter, still at the time of this story retained unsavory pockets that the most visionary of entrepreneurs had rejected as not holding the remotest potential for renovation.
These sagging Victorians, too run down after decades of neglect to be resurrected to desirable states of tweeness, had been divided up by landlords in the middle part of the twentieth century into mean little flats designed to ex-tract the maximum rent from the minimum square footage.
It was in such a flat that Sarah Beauclerk-Fisk received her issue of the invitation to her father’s wedding. Despite the hyphenated name, and despite the fact that the rent was far less than she could have afforded, Sarah had settled into her gloomy surroundings the way an animal will burrow into the smallest available space when it wants to hide from the world in general, and people in particular.
Everything in the place reflected darkly back on Sarah’s per-sonality: The carelessly chosen second-hand furniture included two overstuffed chairs covered in faded roses that clashed with faded wallpaper that might once have been green but was now an indecipherable muddish gray. While bookshelves lining the walls might have offset the gloom with brightly covered novels, instead the dozens of worn books on the shelves blended into the mud like rocks, their covers, mostly black or gray, announcing obscure religious tracts of long-dead martyrs and other assorted lunatics.
It was in one of the overstuffed chairs that an overstuffed Sarah, herself upholstered in brown, had subsided to contemplate the pink leers of the cherubs on the unwelcome invitation she clutched now in her pudgy hands. To her eye, there was something faintly sacrilegious about the ostensibly religious figures, apart from their evident delight in their flagrant nakedness. She wondered if her fa-ther or—that woman—had picked out the cards. Her father, Sarah recognized, could be a vulgarian at times but this particular choice was—she searched for the word—common. Common. Just, she imagined, like (she scanned the card again; what was the wom-an’s name?)—Violet Mildenhall. So difficult keeping the names of her father’s girlfriends straight. Violet. An old-fashioned, pretty name—
The telephone rang. That had to be Albert, if he’d received a card as well. And why wouldn’t he? It wasn’t like her father to play favorites; no, he treated all his children abominably. With an effort she hoisted herself to her feet; the telephone was in the kitchen, where Sarah spent most of her time.
“You’ve got one as well, then.”
“Yes. Oh, God, yes. It’s appalling, just appalling. He kept threat-ening to do it but I didn’t believe him. You know how he just likes to create a fuss. I thought he was just playing with us, hoping for a fight. Bloody old tyrant.”
“Well, letting him know we’re unhappy about it will only feed his happiness,” she said mechanically. At least he sounds sober, she thought, absentmindedly stirring the simmering pot on the cooker. Her love of food had after many years paid unexpected bonuses in the form of a book of baking recipes just out from her father’s publishers, Gregson’s. The book was called What Jesus Ate, ideas for which she had gleaned from a close reading of the scriptures; most of the instructions seemed to involve fish and olives and assorted desert plant life.
Gregson’s had told her they expected it to make pots of money in the New Age market, and indeed it had become one of the surprise best sellers of that season’s list. She was currently working on Cooking with the Magdalene.
Albert sighed audibly, wondering, not for the first time, if his sister, although intelligent in her earnest, pedantic sort of way, was entirely there. He guessed she was just quoting from one of the idiot, platitudinous authors she read, although her apparent philosophical acceptance of the situation was grating. He didn’t want any oil poured on troubled waters; he wanted it poured on the flames.
Albert knew no one in the world as—he searched for the word—nebulous as Sarah. After joining a convent while still in her late teens, she had left after one year (“The food was inedible,” was her only explanation). She had next studied at one of the red brick universities to become a social worker, a trying period for the local poor on whom she had practiced. It was during this time she had gotten in touch with her true feelings and become self-actualized. Her enthusiasm for pop social and psychological theories now had morphed in some way with her brief flirtation with Catholicism into what Albert gathered was a garbled neo-pagan worship of Mother Earth, Father Sky. Where had she come by this stuff? Years of living with their father had made the rest of them tougher, can-nier, albeit in different ways. It had also permanently obliterated whatever traces of the Judeo-Christian tradition he and his brothers had managed to have beaten into them in the medieval public schools to which they had been confined.
“It makes him happy, all right, knowing he’s screwing his children out of any hope of a decent inheritance and embarrassing them to boot by marrying this silly trollop. Happy? I’m certain he is. I can just see him gloating now.”
“What makes you say she’s a trollop? Have you met her?”
“No, in actual fact. Just stands to reason. She appears out of nowhere and the next thing we know there’s this pink horror in the mail. Clearly she wasted no time getting her talons into him.”
“He’s a grown man, Albert. I don’t suppose we can have any say in it. Although one is tempted to try.”
“There must be laws—”
“Waste of time, while he’s alive,” she said too quickly. So, her mind had already traveled down the same path as his. “Even if we had the legal right to challenge this, which I’m sure we don’t. He’ll have seen to that—or rather, his solicitors will.
And he’s not insane, at least by any standards that can be proven.” She sighed heavily, adjusting the temperature under the yellowish mass thickening on the cooker. She was mixing ground sesame seeds, honey, and almonds. This, once stirred to the right consistency, was to be poured out into bars to make halvah. She was on her third try, and still the result was something you could use to build a house. But she was certain the Magdalene would have served this to all her friends, including Jesus. That and Chicken Provençal.
Sarah had reached this particular tortured conclusion after reading the legend that Mary Magdalene had done missionary work in the south of France following Jesus’ death. This opening up all kinds of French/Middle Eastern gastronomic avenues for her book, Sarah had seized on the myth with all the fervor of the convert. Looking at the hardening glob in the pan, she wished the Magdalene could have indulged herself once in awhile with choco-late fudge, but, sadly, there was little evidence for this, in or out of the Bible.
“What difference does it make, anyway? I never had any great expectations of him,” she said now, not entirely truthfully. Albert knew that, as with most of them, expectations there had been on countless occasions, but those expectations had been quickly, mercilessly dashed. Adrian liked to change his will as often as some women will change their hairstyles; it was part of the game he liked to play to keep them all on tenterhooks. “Although Ruthven and Lillian …”
“Yes, the most recent beneficiaries. I wonder how himself and Lady Macbeth are taking this.”
“What do you think she sees in him?” Sarah asked.
“Lillian? I should think that would be obvious. His Visa card, his Barclay’s account …”
“No, I mean—what is her name, I suppose now I’ve got to make an effort to remember if she’s going to be my stepmother.” There was a pause while the ludicrousness of the situation pen-etrated even Sarah’s otherworldly brain.
“Violet. Same answer. Visa, et cetera. You can be taken by them anywhere.” He paused as another thought struck him. “I suppose there’s just a chance …”
Albert trailed off, calculating that since the marriage couldn’t possibly last, there might be wisdom in simply holding one’s tongue until Violet did simply take what she could carry and run with it. God knew there was enough money to go around. The old man’s last book, Miss Rampling Decides, was still high on the best seller lists a year from its launch, and the old horror—his father—had been cranking them out like that every year for decades. The British public seemingly couldn’t get enough of the wizened, serene old biddy who, by rights, should be well over 110 years old by now, liv-ing alone in the small village of Saint Edmund-Under-Stowe, its tiny population reduced to one by its mysteriously high crime rate.
Perhaps Adrian would finally write a book in which Miss Ram-pling was herself shown to be the killer of everyone in her village over the years, thought Albert. Wouldn’t put it past the old bugger to play one last nasty trick on his reading public.
Although Albert had years ago given up reading his father’s books, on principle, he had to admit his famous last name had helped him no end in his checkered theatrical career. Not without a painful self-knowledge, Albert recognized his career might have been even more checkered without the name to get and keep him in front of the footlights. The trouble was, he was fast reaching an age where even the rather wispy roles of pale yet interesting young supporting men suitable for Coward and Rattigan revivals were getting beyond his reach—or rather, he amended reluctantly, his age, despite nightly jaw-firming facial exercises. His brief flirtation with being a leading man had been just that—brief—for Albert, in spite of his looks, had always lacked the presence to command that sort of role.
Becoming that dreaded thing—a character actor— was, he reminded himself firmly, at least five years in the future. But what to do in the meanwhile?
His sister’s voice drew him back to the present.
“—although I don’t think I want to go, I suppose there’s really no choice.”
“To the, er, nuptials, you mean?”
“What else? Not going isn’t an option, of course; it would hurt his feelings—”
As if the old reprobate had feelings!
“—and it might look as if I cared”—that, at least, sounded nearer the truth—“but I’m on deadline for my next book, for one thing. And it might be awkward all ’round, don’t you think? If George is there it will be unbearable.” George was their elder brother, second in line behind Ruthven. Another thought gave an edge of panic to her voice. “And who—who is going to tell Mother?” There was a tentative pleading as she said that last that suggested she was hoping Albert might volunteer.
Not a chance, thought Albert. Let her favorite break it to her.
“I should imagine Ruthven is on the telephone to her right now, never you worry,” said Albert.
Ruthven was in fact on the telephone to his mother, but it was she who had called him. The instrument rang just as he was getting ready to pick up and dial. Any distraction at all was welcome from the grilling he’d been receiving from his wife for the past half hour.
“Ruthven, is that you? It’s your mother, dear. I’ve just had the most amazing, er, communication.”
“He did. Some cherub thing. The envelope looks like it was ad-dressed by a twelve-year-old.”
“That would be Violet. Not far off on the guess at age, I’d say. Oh, sorry, Mother, I didn’t—”
“Never fear. The poor girl has my sympathy, not my envy. At my age, one is relieved to be past the attentions of men. But what can he—she—both of them—be thinking, to invite me? Surely he doesn’t imagine I’ll come, bearing gifts. Is he that far gone, do you think?”
“When I last saw him, which, admittedly, was several months ago, he seemed to be much as ever. Argumentative, repellent. Perhaps more reptilian than usual.
Looking to pick a fight, as always. Fortunately, I didn’t have time to give him one.
This takeover bid with Grobbetter has been like perching in several rings of Hell simultaneously.” Ruthven had made and lost several fortunes buying up small Midland newspapers, sacking most of their workers save the sales staff whilst sucking the places dry of every conceivable asset (“increasing productivity,” was how his press releases put it), and selling the newly productive yet emaciated product to a competitor.
His take-no-hostages philosophy had made him a legend in the publishing world, certainly in his own mind. Thinking he would one day in all likelihood inherit his father’s fortune made it easier for him to be fearless than other men.
“Funny. That might have been the last time I saw him, too. At any rate, it was several months ago.”
“Really?” Ruthven was genuinely stunned. His parents had parted on chilly rather than acrimonious terms—his mother was too vague for the kind of knock-down, drag-out the circumstances almost cer-tainly warranted—that seemed even more to guarantee a complete and final breaking of all ties between them. Even though her brood at the time had barely moved on from formula to solid food, she had never really looked back.
“Yes. He came down to London, on some pretext or other, I rather thought. Said he’d been for his annual in Harley Street. And something about his publishers …
Anyway, he showed up com-pletely out of the blue, didn’t telephone or write ahead. I thought I might faint, dear, when Mrs. Ketchen announced him. It was so unprecedented, I realized something must be up. Curiosity got the better of me. It has been a long time, you know. So many years I’ve lost count.”
“I haven’t. It was my sixth birthday.”
“Yes, dear. Rather awful for you.” She added, rather as if just remembering she had three other children, “For all of you, of course.”
“What did he want?”
“He didn’t say. That was the odd thing. I knew from the moment I saw him he was up to something—you know that gleam he gets in his eye when he’s just about to turn the screws—but in the end he ended up just exchanging the most banal pleasantries and after about an hour he left. I’m still puzzled by it. And rather put out: I cancelled my bridge game to find out what it was he wanted—I thought it might have something to do with you, so I was determined to hear him out, however unpleasant—and yet he never got around to telling me. Talked about his stock portfolio, mostly, as if I cared. He said the gout was troubling him worse than ever, but he wouldn’t take the painkillers the doctor had prescribed.
He said he didn’t want to end up looking like Elizabeth Taylor in rehab.”
“Perhaps he wanted to hear your views on Violet.”
“I’m sure he didn’t have to ask to know my views,” his mother shot back.
Oh, ho. So, she wasn’t quite as indifferent as she sounded.
“I mean really, Ruthven. A girl like that, probably a Page Three girl.” She was fairly hissing now. “What can he be thinking? People have always been most sympathetic, but the press will have a field day—a three-day’s wonder, of course, it’s not like royalty getting married or having its phone calls intercepted, after all, but still. The worst of it is, the real tragedy of it is, what it’s going to mean to you.
Has he given any hint? Have you heard from him?”
“You mean apart from this execrable invitation? Not a word.”
“We’ll have to put our heads together, Ruthven. There must be a way to make him see reason.”
“Funny. Those are the exact words Lillian used.”